Resolving the iPhone resolution | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

1) What is “resolution”, really?

Imagine you see a vehicle coming toward you on the highway from miles away. Is it a motorcycle with one headlight, or a car with two? As the vehicle approaches, the light splits into two, and you see it’s the headlights from a car. But when it was miles away, your eye couldn’t tell if it was one light or two. That’s because at that distance your eye couldn’t resolve the two headlights into two distinct sources of light.

The ability to see two sources very close together is called resolution. It’s measured as an angle, like in degrees. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope has a resolution of about 0.00003 degrees. That’s a tiny angle! I’m simplifying here a bit, but you can think of this as saying that two stars farther apart than that are seen as two objects; if they are closer together, even with Hubble they appear as a single object.

Since we measure resolution as an angle, we can translate that into a separation in, say, inches at certain distance. A 1-foot ruler at a distance of about 57 feet (19 yards) would appear to be 1 degree across (about twice the size of the full Moon). If your eyes had a resolution of 1 degree, then the ruler would just appear to you as a dot.


June 11, 2010